Why do we treat Arab demagogues like Qaradawi and Atwan with undeserved respect?

In the context of the recent tumult in the Arab world, the new no-fly zone over Libya, and other dramatic developments, a lot of people are rightly paying close attention to what influential Arab commentators, journalists and activists are saying. That's a good thing. Unfortunately, many Western and Arab observers are too quick to forget the context in which those words are being uttered and to treat some very irresponsible, albeit influential, Arab political figures as if they were much more respectable than they really are. There's a strange unwillingness to apply the same standards we would to a Sarah Palin, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Silvio Berlusconi or Michael Moore to Arab voices that are also prominent but also equally irresponsible or dangerous. In the past 24 hours on twitter I've had a series of exchanges with several people I respect a great deal about two such figures: Abdel Bari Atwan, editor and publisher of the London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, and Yusuf Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric based in Qatar, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and superstar of Al Jazeera Arabic. I agree these are two important people, but I don't agree they are serious commentators whose opinions are worthy of respect, let alone deference. On the contrary, their utterances, not to say gurglings, always need to be viewed in the context of their political and religious fanaticism, and especially the unsavory agendas they relentlessly promote.

Atwan is perhaps the most important, and certainly the loudest, of the remaining left-nationalist Arab voices, particularly those that are counterintuitively and inexplicably enamored of the Islamist religious right. Essentially his political attitudes are Arabist in a very bad way and shamelessly pandering. Put in the American political terms, he combines something like Pat Buchanan's level of chauvinism with a Michael Moore-style lowest common denominator populist demagoguery. His are politics that are guided by fear and suspicion, mainly of the West and Israel, but generally speaking of anything that undermines his paranoid and chauvinist worldview. He doesn't speak for a particularly large group in the Arab world: his old-style Nasserite weltanschauung is almost entirely a thing of the past, except for some aging holdouts. But these nationalistic and chauvinistic sentiments remain popular, particularly as they do not come with an overt Islamist bent but are rather respectfully deferential to the Islamist perspective.

He is a classic example of a left-nationalist Arab who's in the grip of an unrequited love affair with the religious right, feeling that it embodies all the behaviors, although not necessarily the ideological content, that the old-school Arab left feels it ought to have but cannot muster: Leninist party structures, overt and covert activities and organizations, revolutionary agendas, extensive social programs aimed at winning the hearts and minds of ordinary people, commitment to armed struggle, and, of course, the right enemies. So in spite of the fact that his political perspective has very limited appeal, his voice is loud and influential because so much of what he says seems to resonate with both what people want to hear and also what makes them feel good. His columns, and those like them, are like nostalgic old patriotic songs; you don't necessarily believe a word of what they say, but singing them feels good, takes you back to "the good old days" (which, of course, never existed), and they have a powerful emotional resonance.

Yusuf Qaradawi could be explained as something like the Jerry Falwell of the Arab world, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and the most prominent and influential Islamist and reactionary religious politician in the entire region. Here is a man who metaphorically sits at a desk that has two quasi-spiritual but actually political boxes in front of him, like a pair of giant files, if you will. He then takes everything that comes before him and puts it into one of these two simple boxes: the halal (permitted) and the haram (forbidden), with gradations of what is encouraged or discouraged in between (his most famous book was actually called "The Halal and the Haram in Islam"). It's a very comforting intellectual space, one in which moral and political questions are relatively clear-cut, and explained by an articulate and intelligent octogenarian tub-thumper. His weekly program on Al Jazeera Arabic, "ash-Shariah wal-Hayat" (Islamic law and life) has an estimated audience of about 40 million victims who are thereby propagandized with the worst superstitious and reactionary gobbledygook imaginable.

The elderly Egyptian charlatan has been leading the way in trying to spin the ongoing Arab uprisings in an Islamist bent, particularly in his February 18 speech on the Egyptian revolt. Among his many charming opinions are that Shiites are heretics; that death is an appropriate punishment for apostasy (at least in theory); that terrorism is unacceptable except with regard to Israel; that Hitler was a kind of divine punishment against the Jews; that it was the individual religious duty (fard ayn) of every Muslim to join the Iraqi "resistance" against the Western coalition without specifying which group to join or to what purpose; that a woman who does not sufficiently resist rape might be punished for her ordeal; that “light” wifebeating is acceptable as a last resort; and, of course, that homosexuality should be punished by death. Mashallah!

Now, I put it to you that any Western preacher or politician (Qaradawi is far more politician than preacher, by the way) who takes such views, regardless of whether he/she has a large constituency, would be viewed with a much greater grain of salt than is usually accorded to this charmer. It's reasonable to take what people like Qaradawi and Atwan have to say into account. They are significant voices. They have influence. Atwan has readers. Qaradawi has followers. Lots of followers. So I pay attention to their words quite closely, and any careful reader of Arab public opinion and politics has to. But I never forget who they are, what they stand for and what degree of intellectual and political respectability they should be accorded. I do exactly the same thing here in the United States: I pay close attention to Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson, Dennis Kucinich, Michael Moore, and so forth. But I don't take any of them seriously on their own terms.

There is a very disturbing tendency by both Western and, to some extent also Arab, observers to apply different standards in these cases, to be very tough on Western populists, demagogues and religious fanatics on the one hand and to be neutral, blasé or “understanding” about their Arab counterparts on the other. I don't consider this the soft bigotry of low expectations. I consider it to be a reflection of a lack of appreciation of how bad these politics really are, what their consequences have been and, worse still, could be, and an unwillingness to judge, sometimes harshly, when judgment is, in fact, required. Ignoring such people would be a terrible mistake. But so would according them a level of respectability that they not only don't deserve, but that they have unquestionably forfeited given their gross irresponsibility and shameless opportunism.

There is a lot of complaining about double standards between the West and the Arab world, and that's absolutely justifiable. So in this case, I think we yet again have to look for a single standard: people who consistently talk the worst crap — especially if they are influential with large audiences — need to be held to account. Everyone ought to be reminded at every possible stage exactly who it is they're listening to and what precisely they represent. That can't apply more to American and other Western hucksters and snake oil salespersons than it does to Arab ones, if we are to maintain a serious level of political judgment and thereby know what we are listening to and talking about.